In Myanmar, Buddhist Heritage Clashes with Rohingya Policy

Burnt down houses in a Rohingya village in Rakhine State after clashes in August 2017. (Moe Zaw/Wikimedia Commons)

Burnt down houses in a Rohingya village in Rakhine State after clashes in August 2017. (Moe Zaw/Wikimedia Commons)

2600 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, abandoned his regal life of luxury and became a vagabond. He sought to understand the nature of suffering: Why must people suffer? What is the cause of suffering?  

Siddhartha taught that a life based on possessions cannot bring happiness, because nothing is permanent. He instructed others to lead a decent life and not to harm or kill living things. To kill another person in the name of religion is strictly forbidden and breaking a key moral precept of the Buddhist religion.

But today, Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country, is defying religious doctrine to persecute the Rohingya ethnic minority in the name of Buddhism. This militant Buddhism is taking place in an attempt by the Burmese government to create a strong national identity, unified in part by scapegoating the Rohingya.

Described by in 2013 the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, over 1 million Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the late 1970s. A 1982 citizenship law excludes the ethnic minority from the recognized eight national indigenous races of the country and denies them citizenship. The Burmese government recognizes the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite having lived in Myanmar for centuries, preventing them from obtaining citizenship.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group descended from Arab traders with no other homeland, despite having lived in Myanmar for generations. They differ ethnically, linguistically and religiously from the rest of Myanmar’s peoples. Myanmar is not homogenous; ethnic groups include the Shan, Karen, Mon, Indian and Chinese, but the most prominent group, the Bamars, make up 68 percent of the population. Additionally, 89 percent of the population is Buddhist, with Christians and Muslims each comprising about 4 percent of the population. Ethnic violence exists throughout the nation, but the conflict between Muslims — almost all of which are Rohingya — and Buddhists of various ethnic groups is the most prominent and the most destructive.

“Why must people suffer?” Siddhartha wondered. In the case of the Rohingya, years of historic resentments, xenophobia, and the desire to preserve a singular religious identity unscathed by Muslims are the cause. The Rohingya are the only Muslim group in the nation, and religious differences have evolved into ethnic discrimination. The Burmese government intends to preserve the traditional religion and values of Myanmar, and to prevent the spread of Islam while using militant Buddhism to unify the nation.

The most recent exodus began in August 2017. About 7,000 Rohingya, including 700 children under the age of five, were killed in the month following the breakout of violence. Nearly 400 villages in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya reside, were annihilated. The Myanmarese military has committed crimes against humanity in the process of this ethnic cleansing, including killing, rape, arson and infanticide. A 19-year-old Rohingya woman gave an account of being raped by soldiers as petrol bombs were thrown on her village. Her eldest son was killed with a machete. Crisis response director for Amnesty International, Tirana Hassan, stated that, “Security forces surround a village, shoot people fleeing in panic and then torch houses to the ground. In legal terms, these are crimes against humanity—systematic attacks and forcible deportation of civilians.” The Burmese military is highly coordinated and thorough in its efforts to entirely liquidate the Rohingya population.

The hatred of Muslims was exacerbated by false posts on Facebook by Myanmar’s military, breaking another key precept of Buddhism: to abstain from false speech. Scam accounts were created on Facebook to distribute anti-Rohingya propaganda, such as sharing stories portraying Islam as a global threat to Buddhism or false testimonies about the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man. This was a systematic campaign to further villainize the Rohingya, despite its conflict with Buddhist doctrine.

These atrocities are at utter juxtaposition with the Buddhist doctrines of decency and harmony: The Dalai Lama XIV stated that “our struggle must remain non-violent and free of hatred." The conflict between the Rohingya and Burmese nationals began as a conflict of religion but has since become a conflict of ethnicity. Protection of the Buddhist faith has been twisted and mutated into an excuse for abhorrent violence for the sake of nationalism. Doctrines used by Burmese nationals bear almost no resemblance to Siddhartha's original teachings, or the values emphasized by Buddhists today.

All major religions have had cases of extremist violence, often motivated by ethnic superiority. Violence has been used to defend and spread Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism for centuries: the Crusades, 9/11, Saffron Terror. However, Buddhism has a very limited history of religious violence because Buddhism condemns the use of violence, whereas other religions do not. In Matthew 10:34, Jesus states “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” and at 13:42 mentions the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” that will happen on Judgment Day. Quran verse 5:33 states “The penalty for those who wage war against Allah…is that they be murdered or crucified.”

The genocide occurring in Myanmar marks the recent formation of a type of militant Buddhism, which promotes the supremacy of Buddhism while emphasizing ethnocentric and islamophobic ideas. The group, MaBaTha (formally titled The Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion), is a Myanmarese nationalist organization that seeks to protect the country’s Buddhist core. Led by the monk Ashin Wirathu, it aims to punish and exile those that pose a threat to Buddhism. Wirathu has claimed to be a peaceful preacher and not an advocate of violence, though the legitimacy of these claims has been disputed.

Religious violence permeates all religions, because in the end, it is not about difference in religion; rather, these atrocities are about ethnic differences that often parallel religious differences. These human rights offenses continue a pattern seen throughout history of religion being twisted and misused to scapegoat and annihilate an entire group of people, specifically one with no other home. The key moral precept against killing living things teaches that the more virtuous people are, the more blameworthy killing them is. This perhaps lends an excuse for the annihilation of the Rohingya as they are not seen as virtuous, their murders are excusable. Despite this, the key moral precepts of Buddhism still condemn the killing of any living thing. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “We are trying to end the suffering of our people — not to inflict suffering upon others.”

Militant Buddhism and Buddhist extremism are contradictions to Buddhism’s origins that, in the case of the Rohingya, are extremely costly. In an earlier interview, Ms. Hassan argued that it is a “lack of political will, not a lack of evidence” that prevents the international community from acting on behalf of the Rohingya. There is a boldfaced irony between the methods used to defend Buddhism by Myanmar’s military and militia groups and Buddhist values themselves. Buddhism teaches that suffering is inevitable, but the degree of suffering that generations of the Rohingya have endured is endlessly more than any group should. As militant Buddhism and nationalism become more prevalent in Myanmar, the traditional values taught by Siddhartha are increasingly contradicted.